Issue #43, Fall/Winter 2011

We're Not All That Normal

An interview with Michael Lotenero

Robyn Jodlowski

We're Not All That Normal

Michael Lotenero divides his time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in TIME, The Wall Street Journal, Big Magazine, and others, and in galleries in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.


Artists who collaborate with Creative Nonfiction generally read the essays first, then come up with their illustrations. How did this process work for you? Did certain phrases or ideas stick out? Do you have a favorite essay in this issue?

I started with the same approach. I read the essays and basically went back and forth with Stephen [Knezovich] and Jenelle [Pifer] and the staff over at CNF. Really just comparing notes on what we thought were the important aspects of each essay to portray. Working loosely at first, sending stuff back and forth until we had something that everyone was happy with. I hate to pick a favorite. I can only say that the ones I had the most fun with were "Rebecca v. Mr. Wonderful" by Mardi Jo Link and "Birds" by Craig Strydom.

What similarities do you see between the creation of literary and visual works of art?

I think the biggest similarities are the fact that you are making something that engages people and takes them somewhere else for a while. You are making something out of thin air.

Some reviewers have called your art “disturbing” but it’s also very attractive. Why do you think we’re drawn to unsettling images?

Hmmm, I've heard that before. I think the things that make us uncomfortable or touch an area that seems unsettled are the things that we connect with on a deeper level. Everything else is just the noise that we all push through to make our lives seem normal and comfortable. Why we are attracted to it might be the idea that we're not all that normal.

Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?

That’s a tough one. I would have to say the ones that have a sort of Trojan Horse effect. You find yourself looking at it or involved with it, and it seems pretty pedestrian or whatever. Then you find that little detail or twist in the way the artist made it their own, or the way they've told their own story and that's what I tend to gravitate towards. I also like to see works that show physicality, in terms of the making or process. The fact that you can feel the energy that was put into it and the way the artists bends the materials.

What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?

I would have to call it controlled procrastination that evolves into a manic abyss. I have to have everything perfect around me. The dishes need to be done etc, then I just make a huge mess and I won’t stop until its done.

What role does emotion play in your art?

Emotion is the lead role...the protagonist with a bit of a stability issue.

In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life’s story.

Making things out of other things.

What initially drew you to painting/sculpture?

Monster movies. I originally wanted to be a stop motion animator or special effects guy in the worst way at a very young age. I was the 10 year old kid who would turn all of his friends into monsters. I had a crazy studio/laboratory in my grandparents’ basement where I would make a lot of sculptures and oddities. I had a blast.

Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece? Why?

Right now it's some of the stuff I've been working on in Brooklyn. I found this old elementary school book on a stoop. I have been taking pieces of it and pieces of random refuse that my wife and I have found around the neighborhood and making these larger collages that sort of re-interpret the grade school history books. This piece called "The Real Columbus" is one of them. I made the boat out of a chair and some brownstone floorboards.

Do most of your art pieces have stories behind them or do you start creating and see what happens?

A little of both. I’ve always liked to start with mark making or random materials and I try to see where it takes me. I’ve always likened it to finding pictures in the weird wallpaper when you were a kid. It’s my favorite way of making things. Then from that point, I can sort of start with the back story or put pieces together (literally) side by side and let them sort of talk and play off of each other. They then take on a nice narrative together.

You’ve played in several bands through the years. How does your music influence or interact with your art (or vice versa)?

It’s a really big part. It gives me a chance to write. I take a similar approach as painting. I pick random words or a chunk of a story and start from there. Kind of an Exquisite Corpse game of my own. The fun part is working with the band. It’s much more of a collaborative project, where our guitarist Mark Urbano has a riff or a piece of something he's been working on. I have a little book I write in. Then we get together and mix it together until it turns into something. I’m not exactly a singer as much as a vocalist, but I enjoy writing so much. With that being said, I wouldn't call myself a writer either.

Why do you think faces so often pop up in your work?

The faces have been there all along. It’s one of those things that I paint from my head and every time it’s slightly different. It’s something familiar and a nice point of return for me.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished up some illustrations for a surf magazine in Portugal. Some of my work is also being used in an upcoming film called "The Trouble With The Curve" with Clint Eastwood and Justin Timberlake, and I’m kicking off this back painted kitchen backsplash business called Glassplash, plus we're recording a bunch of new material with the band (Chupacabra).

And finally, what art forms or artists do you wish more people knew about?

That’s so tough. It’s hard to cite specific ones, but I would say it’s just important to get to know as much of the scene around you as you can. Visual, music, theater, film, food…whatever. It may sound clichéd, but it's much more fun to engage your community or city through art. It’s something that is the place you live in.

Author Bio

Robyn Jodlowski

Robyn Jodlowski is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. She is also an editor at Longform.org and teaches at the University of... read more

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